Monday, December 1, 2014

Tablets, tablets, tablets: what to look for when buying this season

'Tis the season to buy stuff for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/etcetera! One popular tech toy that you or your loved ones may be asking for is a tablet, which is certainly a handy piece of equipment for games, notes, reading, and media. Tablets are basically oversized phones, but many do not have the capability to make calls or texts. 


Still, you can find Wi-Fi only and data-enabled flavors of tablets from almost every manufacturer. Trustworthy tablets typically range in the $200-500 starting price range, though deals can be found for a bit lower during Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Whatever you do, do not buy the no-brand $40 tablet because that is a mistake just waiting to happen in so many ways. I'm not going to elaborate on the problems, but let's just say security breaches and slow operation are the biggies here.

That being said, let's look at 8 good tablets that fall into a few categories:

Screen Size - How big the tablet itself is

Small tablets: these tablets have a 7 or 8-inch screen, and can fit in small hands and some pockets easily. This doesn't mean that they'll sacrifice power; these selections can pack a punch in performance and last you a while on battery.

Large tablets: a 9 or 10-inch screen is the norm in this category. The iPad helped define this category as the go-to size for consumers. They're ideal for media viewing and for more strenuous tasks.

Performance Type - What the tablet is best used for

Gaming/Media tablets: If you want to do some heavy gaming or movie-watching, these tablets are for you. They have serious power and performance, and can handle less demanding tasks effortlessly.

Light-use/Casual tablets: If you don't need a super powerful tablet, look at these tablets. 

Hybrid tablets: This could best be described as "convertible computers", but these pieces of tech can be used as a laptop or a tablet. This type is mostly filled by the current crop of Windows 8 hybrids.

Professional/Business tablets: arguably, any tablet could fill this type, but some of these are touted as best to be used by business people and companies seeking to amp up their tech game.

I'll also include the Best Customers, or the people who would benefit the most from using the tablet listed.

For decision-making purposes, I've also included the pros and cons of each tablet, but because that phrase is clich├ęd and because this blog is pretty interesting to read already, I made up a fun way of saying that!



What's Hot and Not-so-Hot - The good and the bad of the tablet

What's Hot: these are some of the features and qualities of the tablet that stand out the most. If it makes it more user-friendly or otherwise shows a useful feature, it'll be highlighted here.

What's Not-so-Hot - no tech product is a perfect tool. There is always a caveat involved; software could be outdated or performance may be lagging behind the competition. Maybe it's heavy and awkward to use, or it may not have certain features that the average tablet has.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 ($400 starting price)

photo cred: ndtv.com

Screen: Small (8.4" diagonal)
Type: Gaming/Media & Light-use/Casual
Samsung's tablet family is notorious compared to Apple's iPad pair. The Tab S 8.4 is small, sleek, and can be used by anyone who can use Android and likes the TouchWiz interface. Movie buffs will love the screen resolution and it has decent cameras to boot. It can soon even hand off and accept tasks from a Samsung smartphone, tablet, computer, or TV using Samsung Flow (still in development), rivaling the Handoff feature of the iPhone and iPad.
What's Hot: Expandability with microSD cards, a few exclusive features from Samsung, looks slick, powerful performance, fingerprint scanner a la the Galaxy S5 smartphone. Access to Google services like Drive and unlimited photo storage via Google+ are handy. Cameras are good for everyday photography and video chats with friends and loved ones. Easy access to replace battery and a unique backplate that feels nice when a case isn't used (note: ALWAYS BUY A PROTECTIVE CASE FOR TABLETS. ALWAYS.)
What's Not-so-Hot: The older Note 8.0 had a stylus, and the Tab S doesn't, meaning some cool features that could've been included aren't. The $400 price tag rivals the iPad mini but is still a premium. The Samsung apps stuffed in there can't be deleted to make way for more storage space. Also, will not update to Android 5.0 Lollipop for a few months.
Best customers: movie buffs, people in long-distance relationships, who don't want to use iOS, or who like Samsung

iPad mini ($400 starting price)

photo cred: cultofmac.com

Screen: Small (7.9" diagonal)
Type: Light-use/Casual
While only an incremental increase from 2013's iPad mini 2, the mini 3 adds Touch ID to its feature set, and it runs iOS like a champ. The smaller screen size and light price, when compared to the iPad Air 2, make it an appealing buy.
What's Hot: Smaller screen size, Touch ID fingerprint scanner, Apple's strong ecosystem of products, instant access to iTunes, iCloud, the App Store, and other exclusive Apple services. Handoff is handy in sharing tasks between Macs and iPhones.
What's  Not-so-Hot: Still no NFC on here, the only major improvement was Touch ID. Still uses 2013's internal specs. Still can't expand to a microSD card. $400 is a premium price tag for a small tablet.
Best customers: people who want to pay less for Apple, who are already in Apple's ecosystem of products, or who want a lightweight, simple tablet.

Nvidia Shield Tablet ($300 starting price)

photo cred: ndtv.com

Screen: Small (8" diagonal)
Type: Gaming/Media
The Nvidia Shield Tablet is an outright steal at $300 for the 16 GB storage model (Wi-Fi only). It features the Tegra K1 processor onboard, meaning it's a gaming powerhouse already. As if that isn't enough, you can stream games from your Steam account onto it as long as you have a laptop or PC with compatible GeForce GTX hardware and the proper GeForce Experience app on your computer. It also connects to a TV via a micro-HDMI port, meaning you'll need the proper cable. Added bonuses? A stylus is included (not like the Note stylus; this isn't an active one, but rather passive), and you can buy the controller separately for games.
What's Hot: gaming powerhouse, great cameras for video chat, runs stock Android, features special exclusives from Nvidia, stylus, good price, and is ready to update to Android 5.0 Lollipop.
What's Not-so-Hot: not all games are prepped for K1 potential, plastic feel for construction. Using it with a TV means buying a special cable, and games from Steam need the controller.
Best customers: serious PC gamers who want an equally serious tablet, people who want the stock Android experience with a few perks, digital artists, or anyone who like mobile gaming. 

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact ($500 starting price)

photo cred: Sony Mobile
Screen: Small (8" diagonal)
Type: Gaming/Media & Light-use/Casual
The Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is not just any old 8-inch tablet. It runs Sony's Xperia skin on top of Android, but it isn't that heavy and it has perks. For example, you can stream PS4 games to this baby and attach a PS4 controller to it to play your games. It has two great cameras for video chat, microSD expandability, and it's waterproof as a bonus. It's lightweight and it's a premium tablet for the premium user. The included charging dock even is angled to allow comfy viewing while it charges.
What's Hot: PS4 Remote Play is a sweet incentive if you have a PS4, 8-inch screen portability, powerful processor, premium perks, booming facing speakers great all-around tablet
What's Not-so-Hot: the $500 price tag for an 8-inch tablet is a shocker, not everyone will be a fan of the Xperia UI. Sony doesn't offer enough incentive to use its exclusive services. Waterproofing is nice, but what about other ruggedized features?
Best customers: PS4 owners, people who want a powerhouse tablet, people who own Xperia smartphones, or anyone who just wants a lightweight, reasonably durable tablet.

iPad Air 2 ($500 starting price)

photo cred: MacRumors

Screen: Large (9.7" diagonal)
Type: Light-use/Casual & Professional/Business
Still the overall benchmark for the large tablet category, the iPad Air 2 features Touch ID, major internal performance improvements, and access to all of Apple's exclusive features. Apps available for the casual consumer or even the business powerhouse make it a versatile tablet for use by almost anyone when paired with the user-friendly iOS system.
The Hot: arguably the most popular tablet on the market, features Touch ID and Apple Pay, Continuity with compatible iPhones, iCloud access, iTunes, and other staples of Apple's ecosystem.
The Not-so-Hot: no tap-and-pay with Apple Pay as it still lacks NFC, still pricey at $500 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model. Battery life isn't improved (though still good) from last year, and the only compelling reason to buy it is that it comes in a gold option.
Best customers: the Apple fanatic who has the cash, anyone who loves iOS and is in Apple's product and service ecosystem, small businesses or large corporations seeking to make their business more digital

Google Nexus 9 by HTC ($400 starting price)

photo cred: Google

Screen: Large (8.9"diagonal {basically 9"})
Type: Light-use/Casual, Professional/Business & Gaming/Media
HTC's first tablet attempt in several years hits the mark. Running stock Android 5.0 Lollipop, it's the first Android tablet to run a 64-bit dual-core processor, giving it near-PC power. It has more advanced features, BoomSound speakers, and two exceptional cameras for video chat. An optional officially-licensed keyboard folio makes productivity easier on-the-go.
What's Hot: the bleeding edge of Android, powerful processor, compelling connectivity to all Android devices through services like Google Play Music, always-on Google Now voice search, powerful processor
What's Not-so-Hot: not every app in the Google Play Store is ready to use a 64-bit processor. The Nexus 9 has no microSD card slot, and the largest storage model offered is 32 GB. With the starting Wi-Fi only price at $400, this is a premium tablet even if it's less than the iPad Air 2 and Nexus 9.
Best customers: casual Android users, Android-oriented business professionals, media junkies who use Google services, anyone willing to be on the bleeding edge of Android at any price now that the Nexus 7 and 10 are about to fade.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 ($800 starting price)



photo cred: Forbes


Screen: Large (12" diagonal)
Type: Hybrid, Light-Use/Casual & Professional/Business
Microsoft's tablet runs with the claim that it can replace your laptop, and it's been used in ads that mock the Macbook Air in genius style. The included stylus, on-screen multitasking, and Windows 8.1 make it a powerhouse, and the optional keyboard cover helps it stand out. It comes in storage capacities and processor options from an Intel Core i3 processor with 64 GB of storage up to a 512 GB beast powered by an Intel Core i7 processor. The Surface Pro 3 is the standard in blurring the lines between laptop and tablet in many different ways.
What's Hot: included pen is great, ideal machine for Windows 8.1, kickstand is built in, large screen size showcases work well. Access to Microsoft's Office apps, which are used by virtually everyone. Stylus can be used across the tablet, very versatile in function.
What's Not-so-Hot: It's pretty pricey even for just an i3 processor, and more advanced options can bump the price to near $2000. The keyboard is not included and has to be bought for $130. An optional dock for the Surface Pro 3 is $200, making it less compelling as a workstation replacement. There's no on-tablet storage for the stylus. You still have to buy Office in some form or find free alternatives. Other options can have higher-end specs for near this base price.
Best customers: students, educators, business professionals, and anyone who wants a larger iPad alternative with some neat tricks.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 ($500 starting price)



photo cred: Samsung

Size: Large (10.5" diagonal)
Type: Gaming/Media, Light-Use/Casual & Professional/Business
Yes, you're looking at a bigger, re-oriented Tab S 8.4. Aside from the screen size, orientation of rear and selfie cameras; and the location of Samsung's Home, Back, and Menu buttons, the Tab 10.5 is the same as its smaller twin. You get the same internal specs, but a bigger screen makes this a go-to device for Android users who also like to take movies with them on the go.
What's Hot: richly-colored screen, excellent cameras for general photography and video chat. Processing power is great, easy access to replace battery, expandable via microSD cards to store more stuff than the average tablet. Also, when Samsung Flow is released, it'll let the tablet and compatible Samsung smartphones, TVs, tablets, and computers accept and hand off tasks a la iOS's Handoff.
What's Not-so-Hot: while it's bigger than the iPad Air 3, this means most people may not be able to hold this thing smoothly. It does share the premium Wi-Fi Only starting price and configuration of the iPad: $500 for 16 GB of storage space, not factoring in the preloaded apps Samsung is notorious for stuffing their gadgets with. The orientation of the home button and companion capacitative buttons insinuates that you'll hold the tablet in landscape mode, which isn't what most people are used to.
Best Customers: students looking for an auxiliary companion/back-up device for school, educators, Netflix/Hulu addicts, lightweight mobile gamers,  businesses and companies whose infrastructure plays nice with Android, and people who want a bigger tablet for personal use.

Those are my 8 strongest recommendations for tablets for the holiday 2014 season. Based on your budget and the needs of who you're buying for, these options should cover bases pretty well. If you have a question about these or want to ask about one I didn't mention, let me know in the comments!

-M


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